PLAYED LIKE A BANJO: SUSANNE’S STORY
By Rosemary Cacolice Brown
Whenever I pass or enter a flower shop, the episode that happened three years ago spins in my mind like an old movie reel in vivid sequence.
At the time I had just received my Bachelor’s degree from a quiet university about forty miles from my home in Milford, Connecticut, my hope to one day become a curator of a museum that showcased the genius of iconic painters throughout history. That said, I willfully chose not to inform my parents of the specific date of my commencement.
My reason was selfish and punitive, I know, but I didn’t want my hallmark achievement sullied by their acrimony, now at full tilt after twenty-seven years of marriage. On my last visit, their hefty supply of hurled accusations—including the S-word, separation—is not necessary for this telling. I’ll say only that my broken heart prompted my petulant decision—not that they’d care, I presumed, wrapped in royal battle as they were. To boot, I wasn’t going back to witness more of the same. Not by a long shot.
That very day I called Gracie over in New Haven, my godmother whom I adored, and it lifted my spirits just to hear her voice. I found her at her café-styled bakery on Whitney Avenue, a place I knew well. Nestled among other quaint enterprises along the strip, even its welcoming striped awnings over the storefront exuded a soothing resonance I so needed.
“I’d love to come and see you,” I hinted, tamping down my anxiety as best I could.
“Why sure, baby, just get your sweet butt moving!” she replied in her comical Gracie way.
I arrived that evening with suitcase in tow, for I honestly didn’t know how the day would turn. I rushed to her open arms, and after warm hugs and joyful greetings she ushered me inside. Pointing to the Bentwood chairs flanking a small bistro table in the corner, she chirped, “Sit, be right back.”
Soon I was presented with a generous serving of peach strudel and a cup of her fine Columbian coffee. Gracie always believed that everything seemed better on a “happy stomach”—her words. I began to unwind as I filled her in on the safe stuff; how I’d been since we last saw each other; my degree, my ambition for the future. But when I ran out of steam she leaned forward and clutched my tapping fingers. With tears welling, I then revealed the downside: My parents’ possible separation; my exclusion of them at my commencement; my plan not to return home, devastated as I felt.
Her tender gaze held no judgment. “So just where are you going?” she softly asked.
“I don’t know,” I stubbornly replied. “I just know where I’m not going.”
“Well, now you do,” she assured without a hitch. “You can’t go roaming about aimlessly, so you’re coming home with me until your mind clears. Just promise me you’ll let them know where you are. However you feel, they’re still your parents.”
Relieved, I promised. The prospect of staying with Gracie was the perfect antidote for my compulsive ducks-in-a-row mindset. But, resolute, I had no plans to leave any time soon. I had to be sure she knew what she was in for.
“I may be here longer than you think, Gracie, but I don’t want to put you out.”
She chuckled. “Nonsense! After losing my Harry three years ago I’d love the company, so it’s good for both of us.”
So, the plan was on. I waited for bakery closing, appeasing my niggling guilt for what I’d done by perusing my new book of Salvador Dali paintings pulled from my tote bag, and when Gracie called it a day I followed her home in my Ford clunker.
That first night we chatted over deli takeout, complimented by her prized bakery cheesecake. I felt warm and safe as the knots within me began to loosen. Avoiding the hovering elephant among us, we chatted lightly about inconsequential things I cannot remember until she kissed my forehead and bade me goodnight. Then, in the quiet of her quaint kitchen I kept my promise to inform my folks—but not by phone. I wasn’t ready for that. I simply wrote a short, succinct note filling them in on my B.A. and whereabouts, softening my brief missive by ending with “Much love, see you soon” and it would have to do. But at least Gracie would be pleased by my effort—and had a thought.
How could I convey my appreciation that she took me in? Mere gratitude didn’t seem enough. But a bouquet of flowers? Perfect!
She was gone the next morning before I woke those flowers still on my mind. But from where? All I knew of New Haven was Yale University, nothing else. After showering, dressing quickly and downing some coffee and toast, I was on my way. Hopefully I’d find a florist on my way to the bakery.
Luckily, the answer arrived just as I turned onto Whitney Avenue. I spotted a flower shop with a quirky name called “The Emporium” about eight blocks down from Gracie’s place. I pulled into the adjacent parking lot, and while walking in noticed the “Help Wanted” sign in the window.
Utterly clueless, my New Haven escape was about to turn a page—and not for the better.
Right off, the thirty-something woman at the counter reminded me of the school librarian who date-stamped the books I devoured back in the sixth grade. A tad plump, with coiffed hair and glasses, she was still youthfully attractive, though I sensed something in her expression I couldn’t define.
“I’d like a small bouquet, please,” I began, “something small, sweet…maybe some stephanotis and nosegays, sprinkled with baby’s breath perhaps?”
Jotting the order, she asked. “Your name, please?”
“Susanne Morley,” I replied—and casually got to the question. “I see from the window sign you’re looking for some help here?”
She sighed. “Yes, but so far nothing. My assistant quit last week and it’s my busy season, what with graduations, weddings and anniversaries, so many in June it seems.” Glancing up, she said, “Why, are you interested in applying?”
“Well, I don’t live in New Haven, actually.”
“How long will you be here then?” she persisted.
“Can’t say, perhaps a month…”
She smiled, finally. “Well, I’m Ruby, and that would be just enough time to get me through the rush. Do you have any experience with flowers? Cutting, preserving, arranging?”
“You’re offering me a job?” I asked, stunned.
“Well, you seem to know flowers,” she nervously replied, “specific as you were about the bouquet. I’d pay a hair over minimum wage, but with plenty of hours through Saturday…that is, if you’re willing,”
I pondered a moment. Why not? It would get me out of Gracie’s hair all day, fill the tank of my clunker and hopefully take my mind off my parents’ troubles. Not to mention the optics of the place with its jazz-age theme and floral fragrance—gardenia, I think—wafting through the air. When my little bouquet was ready I rushed it over to Gracie, as giddy as a dog fetching Frisbees as I filled her in on my good “karma” before scurrying back to The Emporium to tell Ruby I was in.
In short time I soon learned that Ruby knew her calling! During a brief lull she’d brief me on her colorful world of blossoms; everything from botanical to commonly known names, how to prune, which blooms had sturdy vase life, which did not. At the time, I presumed her passion was just that, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! As she warmed to my presence, the daily tutorial morphed into girl talk. When I casually inquired about the flower shop’s odd name, she quickly explained. She was fourth-generation owner, The Emporium first dubbed so by her great-grandfather who met his wife at a dance hall by the same name in 1926.
In that time frame Andy entered the chit-chat, the obvious “man” in her life. He’d be returning from Danbury “hopefully soon,” as she put it, scuttling my first impression that she wasn’t the type to venture beyond The Emporium’s tinkling door chime. The mere mention of his name seemed to ignite her! I’d have been as dumb as a doorknob not to realize he hung her moon.
Through it all I’d keep Gracie current in the evening, babbling on as she sat crocheting a mauve and green afghan, her way of relaxing after a busy day at the bakery. But I was careful as well, for what I wouldn’treveal was my curiosity that my parents hadn’t been in touch. Gracie never mentioned it, so it was easy to assume their mutual anger now included me.
On the following Monday the illusive Andy finally appeared. I had pictured him a nondescript desk jockey or retail manager, but not so! He and Ruby seemed like mismatched bookends! He was obviously younger than she, well-built and ruggedly handsome in his designer jeans, denim jacket and silver belt buckle, his eyes the color of cloudless July skies—and I sensed by his swagger that he knew it. Although Ruby tried to tamp down her meter, clearly she was joyous at his return. So, after polite intros I excused myself for their privacy and went to the back room, but much to my embarrassment could still hear the gist of their conversation:
“Did you miss me, sweet cakes?”
“Yes, Andy, you know I did. I left several messages on your cell, but you never returned my calls. I haven’t heard from you in two weeks that you’ve been gone.”
“Aw, honey, you know how it is. I was so busy with everything on my plate. Sometimes I didn’t know what day it was .”
“Still, you could have called. But you’re here now, so I forgive you…I guess.”
“That’s my girl. What say we go out tonight and celebrate my homecoming? A nice dinner so I can make it up to you. Then we’ll head back to your place and catch up over some wine.”
“Like always, babe. You got it.”
What I didn’t hear was an apology or that he missed her as well, concluding that perhaps I’d missed that part when I rushed to the bathroom and closed the door, not wishing to be found eavesdropping.
From then on Ruby’s cloaked sadness before Andy’s return vanished like morning dew at sunup. Like an obedient geisha she was there to oblige anything he asked for, including unabashed requests for pin money when he was out of funds, the last time to pay a parking ticket. When he was late or didn’t show at all she became moody, reminding me of a high school sophomore I once knew who always waited under the bleachers to neck with the star quarterback.
Though it was clearly not my concern, it became quite cloying and began to needle me. She seemed bright, intuitive, so how could she not know she was being played like a banjo?
As usual, I kept bending Gracie’s ear on this melodrama while she worked on the afghan in the evening. How patiently she’d let me spiel, probably sensing that I needed to vent, no matter what the premise. And again, during those times I remained tight-lipped about my parents, too prideful and bullheaded now, aware that my desertion from Milford had been by my own volition. However, she did have a cautionary word when I spilled my plan to pull Ruby’s head out of the clouds.
“Honestly, Gracie, I think Ruby needs a heads up! She’s crazy for this Andy guy and he walks all over her. I swear, it’s embarrassing to watch!”
She smiled warily, dropping a stitch. “Think on it, sweetie,” she warned. “Sometimes well-intended advice is like a boomerang that bounces right back to hit you square in the keister.”
Did her prudent words register? No way! Cranked to the hilt, the next day I sidled up to Ruby at the counter right after she completed a big anniversary phone order. It seemed a good time.
“Ruby, how long have you known Andy?” It came out casual-like. Better to ease into it.
She gazed at me blank-eyed. “Two years, Susanne. Why do you ask?”
I squirmed, but wouldn’t back off. “Well, uh, he just seems so full of himself. Can’t you see that?”
“Yes, I can see that,” she replied rather curtly.
I couldn’t stop even then. “And it’s okay with you?”
“Yes, it’s okay with me.”
I was now stupefied. “Then I don’t get it. You’re attractive, you’re smart…and pardon my saying, he’s such a jerk! So why?”
This time she wouldn’t answer, clearly stunned by my boldness. I’d overstepped big time, immediately apologizing as best I could. With concerted effort to escape my nosiness, I scurried to the front window on pretense of rearranging some floral displays, but moments later felt her presence at my back. When I turned, the moist glimmer in her eyes—and her words—touched my heart.
“You asked why, Susanne? Because whatever he is, he makes me happy. And I want to feel happy just like the people who come in here, always buying flowers for somebody they love. I’m pushing thirty-seven, never married and live a quiet life. Sometimes it gets lonely and there’s nobody else, you know? Can you at least understand that?”
I smiled weakly, appeased that, yes, she was fully aware of the circumstance she had placed herself in with this Lothario. Though I still couldn’t fathom how she could demean herself that way I hugged her gently in an effort to scrub away my intrusiveness, only to beat myself up the rest of the afternoon. Why had I been so nosy, almost bringing her to tears?
I don’t know. Whatever it was, I’d say no more. My mission was over.
Only it wasn’t. I began noticing a subtle shift in Andy’s attention toward me by way of a lingering smile or too-long gaze when Ruby’s attention was pulled elsewhere, as if daring me to respond. To say it was unsettling is putting it mildly since I never hid my utter disdain whenever he strolled through Emporium’s door. He kept it up all the way to Friday, a day of colliding circumstances.
That morning Gracie dropped me at work because my clunker finally gave out the night before and was now on the hoist for the weekend at Ziggy’s Garage—Gracie’s brother-in-law’s place—for a brake lining job. Imagining my paltry funds disappearing from my wallet and no way home because Gracie closed late that evening, my intended option was the city bus line. There I was, relating my sorry tale to Ruby just as good old Andy strolled in. He lost no time throwing himself into the mix, his offer dripping with sugar.
“No problem, Susanne. Why I’d be happy to drive you home!”
What to do? I felt like a lost frog on a freeway. Ruby’s expression didn’t help either, delighted as she was by his chivalry in that moment. Clearly, I could read her mind: You see, Susanne, he’s not so bad if you’d just give him a chance… Not wishing to disappoint her, I stiffly accepted, reasoning that it was just a short distance to Gracie’s, so what could go wrong?
In short, everything. Aside from my directions, not an otherwise word was spoken between us until we reached Gracie’s driveway. Then, out of the blue, he threw it out.
“You don’t like me, Suzie girl, do you?”
I was shocked by his question, but feigned innocence. After my botched attempt that day to warn Ruby, I had vowed myself to silence.
“Why wouldn’t I like you, Andy? I hardly know you.”
“Sure you do,” he retorted, not missing a beat. “And you’re right, you know?”
“I am who I am, you see. But Ruby accepts that because she needs me. In fact, she never even questions my Danbury trips to see another chick. I’m all she’s got.”
“Oh, I see. So you’re doing something noble then, right?”
“Sure,” he boasted. “I figure she’s a big girl with a mind of her own. Besides, sometimes I need her, too, and she’s always a sure thing, if you get my drift.”
Oh, yeah, I got it all right, now at the tipping point. “Makes perfect sense, Andy,” I mocked. “Ruby, always available when you’re out of options and the fire needs stoked. Is that it?”
He shrugged. He smiled. It was sickening. He was so damn sure of his magnetic attraction he saw no need to hide it. Yet, inexplicably, his unapologetic bravado compelled me, much like the Dali paintings did in my book—brazenly warped, yet intriguing nonetheless. But I shook it off because he’d gone too far with his blatant disregard for an obviously lonely woman who needed him so—and all bets were off as I had my say!
“You have no conscience, Andy. You’re nothing but a user, a taker—a real bastard. You know that?”
This time he turned away, unresponsive. Hearing no return fire, I assumed I nailed him with my dead-on volley. But when he turned with penitent expression he parried with more words.
“I suppose—no, I know—I deserved that because I can’t deny the charges. So how shocked would you be to learn that I often despise myself for deceiving her? Sometimes I can’t even sleep. But if I took a hike, we both know what would happen. She’d shrivel up like those damn flowers she loves so much and I can’t handle that. So, I’m trapped—and now you know the truth of it.”
My God, had I misjudged him? Thrown by his sly confession I was completely roped in. Still, staying on cue, I reached for the door handle as he inched closer with pleading eyes.
“Please, Suzie, don’t leave! Believe it or not, you’re the first woman I’ve ever been honest with and it feels damn good.”
And then? In mutual stare down, the next unfathomable moments transcended all reason, as if I were viewing them from outside myself. Transfixed, I watched as he inched closer still to kiss me. Gently at first, then hungrily, as if longing to connect with something, anything he could feel. In such muddled state I allowed it as titillation rose within me. Seeing no resistance, he then moved in for the kill, first fondling my breast, moving down skillfully to lift my skirt and rub my thighs. I could hear myself moaning softly through the haze—until the backfire of a passing car jarred me free.
“Let go!” I snapped, wrenching from his grasp. Gathering myself, I jerked the car door open and dashed for Gracie’s porch, my trembling fingers rummaging my purse for the house key while he watched, snickering. And while backing out he lobbed a parting salvo.
“See, bitch, you think you’re such a hot shot, so how does it feel to be had? Christ, you’re as dumb as Ruby!”
Indeed. I was now one more banjo in his bag of tricks and he played me well.
Finally, I found the wretched key and opened the door, slamming it behind me. In the shadowy dusk I plodded to the sofa to bury myself in Gracie’s now-finished afghan. There I sat rocking in staccato rhythm, furious with myself, with Andy, even Ruby for her sheer stupidity, until Gracie breezed through the door with a bag of Italian bread under her arm to round out her prepped dinner of pasta Bolognese and green salad. Turning the light switch, her eyes widened as she took in my disheveled hair, sobbing eyes and mascara tracks. Dropping her purse and bread bag, she rushed to my side.
“Good Lord, what’s wrong?” she implored.
Inconsolable, I choked out my story through stilted sobs and gasps of air, repeating myself ad nauseam for a few minutes. How mightily she tried to ease my pain, brushing my hair back and patting my arm, but to no avail. Then, finally weary of my self-flagellation, she jumped up and raised her hands in defeat. Retrieving her purse and bread bag, she marched toward the kitchen—but not before firing a few words of blistering chastisement.
“Enough, Susanne! I understand your humiliation, I really do. But you simply made a bad call! We all do at times! My real concern is that you threw yourself into a situation you had no right to be in—and I don’t mean tonight! You arrived at my door with an underlying guilt that was easy to read, suppressing it by jumping into Ruby’s life, your indignant perceptions in black and white with no forethought of discretion or plain old common sense! You know how I love you, but it’s all become quite tedious to deal with!”
She then managed a deep calming breath, but she wasn’t finished.
“So get me clear. Did the jackass hit a homerun?”
Gracie had wit. At that I looked up, mid-sniffle. “No,” I squeaked out.
“Good,” she said, shaking her head. “So go with that, forgive yourself, get a grip and go wash your face. Life goes on and you will too. Dinner’s in twenty minutes.”
Capsulizing, I settled down after that, as did Gracie while we nibbled at dinner. Concerned about my state of mind, she suggested I spend Saturday with her at the bakery. Abandoning Ruby, I did just that, relieved to feel my dark mood waning as I served patrons and tidied bistro tables. That evening Gracie drove me to Ziggy’s to pick up my clunker—and God love her, she paid the tab.
But on Monday, with shards of remorse still clinging, my anxiety returned as I drove to The Emporium. I could hardly face Ruby, recalling as I did the day I meddled in her life and the payback that followed—almost becoming another notch on Andy’s silver-buckled belt. My penance was to bear witness to his swaggering stroll-ins and her delight at the sight of him. He paid me no mind, of course, but then why would he? I was merely one more box-check in his playbook. How fervently I wished that one glorious day he’d get his due, except that I’d be long gone by then. That Friday I left, deeply moved by how sorry Ruby was to see me go.
One day later, with bear hugs and tears I said goodbye to my Gracie, promising to return before summer’s end. I could hardly keep it steady as I expressed heartfelt gratitude that she pulled me in from my own storm. But now that her wisdom had reached my soul I could face my impulsive runaway, having blindly equated my parents’ turmoil as a threat to my own storybook life. It was time to return to Milford, take my lumps and seek absolution.
Alone as I drove, admittedly I found my courage thinning like frayed thread. Still, I braved on, determined to atone for my foolishness, whatever the outcome. Amazingly, I walked in to open arms and a seismic shift of truce between them. Turns out they had kept touch with Gracie all along, and by her kind counsel allowed me time to rid the burrs from my hide. Though time slogged through the days, by the grace of angels, or so it seemed, the long, worrisome wait they endured became an upside-down blessing. Their shared grief united them at last to soul-search their fractured union—and who’d have thought?
For a while I braced for another volcano, but it never erupted. So, riding on that miracle—and wiser now from my own New Haven experience—I moved on to explore post-graduate programs in Art History to enhance my credentials for entering my coveted world of museum life.
As for Ruby, I think of her often, hope she’s well, and wonder if Andy’s still there bracing her up. If so, I hope he sticks around as long as she needs him or until she wakes up to anoint her own worthiness. But I’ll never really know. I’ve spent some weekends with Gracie since then, but never returned to The Emporium.
* * *
BIO: Rosemary writes happily from her home in Lincoln Park, Michigan, and is always at the keyboard whenever time allows. Early on her work was print-published in small-press magazines. On the Internet, her many stories have been published on Long Story Short, Apollo’s Lyre, Green Silk Journal, Houston Literary Review and Fiction on the Web. She loves putting together a plot more than her morning coffee.